General Johnson, one of the great Southern “Beach Music” singer-songwriters, has died at his home in Georgia. A Grammy winner and former lead vocalist for the Showmen and Chairman of the Board, Johnson was lead vocalist on the hits “It Will Stand” and “39-21-40 Shape.”
A very young Allen Toussaint produced Johnson’s early hits. He recorded for Atlantic Records, Minit and Swan, and Johnson's career was steered by the great songwriter-producers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland.
General Johnson was a major help to me in coming to understand the draw of whites to R&B music and the nuances of Southern culture in the Carolina coastal communities. He understood what the Southerners didn’t about their attraction to beach music and the dance, the Shag. I wrote about Johnson in “Charlie’s Place,” a story in my book “Whitewash: A Southern Journey through Music, Mayhem and Murder.”
General Johnson knew his history and understood the resistance to black music from the Ku Klux Klan and Southern leaders following World War II. But he also understood the unspoken attraction of Southern white kids to black music.
“Beach music…the average person of the Caucasian race could not listen to that music because it was blue music...if you listened to blue music you were scorned,” Johnson told me.“But that same music was on the juke boxes down in Myrtle Beach. And... if you listened to John R (on WLAC in Nashville) you could go down to Myrtle Beach and nobody looked down on you. That's basically why it's called beach music—though it was actually rhythm and blues.”
The raw attraction of white kids to black performers, Johnson said, could be summed up in one word: feeling. “Black artists were able to communicate the feeling of the song they were singing both lyrically and musically. You can call it soul or whatever, but basically it is feeling,” he said.
As to his group, Chairman of the Board, Johnson said “our music is like a drug. People say they come to get high on a show. Our show is an outlet. Our show is full of energy.”
As an example, Johnson offered this story: “ I had a lady come up to me at a concert who said she wanted to thank me for a song that I had written. At the time she was in a divorce and was going through hard times and having second thoughts about whether she was making the right decisions. I had written a song called “Gone Fishing.”
“This song became her theme song, her philosophy. That's because my songs tell a story. A lot of songs today don't tell a story. But you listen to the lyrics and the content means something. At the same time the groove is laid back and mellow or its very happy. You get a good feeling lyrically and for the music. And none of it is threatening. The music is to paint a picture of what you’re singing about. That’s my secret.”
Johnson credited Barry Gordy, founder of Motown, as the one who made black music a very intellectual thing. “It was no more gut bucket. I was more or less taught by the best people and most of them were taught by Barry Gordy.”
Though Johnson found his greatest success in the South, he said his music—rhythm and blues—is equally successful everywhere—especially in Europe. “This is not a regional music. The South is the only area that plays the music. You can’t get interested in what you don’t hear. That why Northerners come down South to hear this music.”